The doorbell rings at the ersatz American Colonial in the Hollywood Hills, the door opens, and there's a very tanned Richard Simmons in red tank top and red-striped exercise shorts.
"Hellllllloooooooooooo," he coos, smiling and striking that Richard Simmons pose the stand-up comics love to spoof.
"Hello, Mr. Simmons."
"I'm Richard, " he says, patting my shoulder.
I brace for what's next. Plenty of slim, fit writers work in the newsroom, but they assign Simmons to me, a man whose weight is slightly above average--for a family of four.
What will he say about that? I've heard of him accosting strangers, scolding them and snatching the Fritos from their hands. He once shrieked at a passerby: "It's a Coke! Oh, my God, say a prayer for him, girls!"
It's all for real, one of his neighbors had assured me. "There is no sham, no charade. I've spent a fair amount of time with him, and what you see is what's there. He really is the kind of individual who will reach out to someone and try to make it better."
Reaching out has earned him thousands of followers and millions of dollars through sales of six books, six audiotapes, nine videos and Deal-A-Meal--a folder of cards, each representing a portion of food allotted for that day. All espouse only mainstream ideas for controlling weight: eat less, exercise more, bolster your self-respect.
His "Sweatin' to the Oldies" exercise video has been on Billboard's best-selling charts for 38 weeks, currently at No. 9. He's sold about 5 million videos in all, enough, if laid end to end, to reach from here to my favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco.
And now I'm going to be spending the day with him, chauffeuring him to The City mall in Orange and watching one of his shopping center shows. He's been doing them for 12 years, but this is his first in his home territory, Southern California.
"Come innnnnn," he says.
Inside it's pastel and plush, but the huge pile of Toys-R-Us bags grabs the attention. Before his show at The City, he'll tour the Orangewood Children's Home across the street, so he spent part of the previous day buying toys to hand out.
The bags just fit into my tiny Honda, and we head off 10 minutes behind schedule.
Simmons had offered to drive, but it's a good thing I had declined. Once under way, he admits he hates driving and never goes above 45 m.p.h.
We've been on the road only five minutes, and already other drivers are waving at him. He makes no attempt to remain aloof. There is no bodyguard, no disguise. He's easy to recognize; he looks exactly like the Richard Simmons on the tube.
"When you have a face and a voice like a box of Duz, I mean, people know you. So they wave and say hello. It's nice. It's nice to be liked, 'cause growing up I didn't particularly like myself. And if you don't like yourself, I don't think other people like you that much either."
When he waves back, he turns on the performer for a moment--not so much a change as an exaggeration. He mugs and waves with boyish enthusiasm. Only when he relaxes do you see the 43-year-old face that with a tie and different hair could belong to a school principal or lawyer.
We head out Sunset Boulevard and get down to business. He recounts the now-familiar biography peppered with one-liners:
* Was addicted to food and obese as a child. "My mother took me to an aquarium and said, 'Those are fish,' and I said, 'Where's the crust?' "
* Went to Southern Louisiana University and Florida State University, majoring in art "because I couldn't major in food."
* Peaked at 268 pounds while studying art in Italy, where some anonymous acquaintence left a note on his car: "Fat people die young."
* Reacted by going anorexic and wound up in a hospital.
* Worked as a book and fashion illustrator, then a cosmetics demonstrator, wound up in L.A. waiting tables in an Italian restaurant, then opened his own combination salad bar and aerobics studio in Beverly Hills.
* It was a hit.
* The rest is fitness history.
"I travel almost 300 days a year. I do mostly shopping malls, because everyone will come to a shopping mall, no matter what they weigh, no matter their economic structure, no matter what they drive. The malls are the meeting places of America. And so that's where I go."
He started doing malls as part of the cast of "General Hospital," a TV soap opera in which he portrayed himself. But soon he went out on his own.
Now he's doing more than 100 malls a year for fees ranging from $2,500 to $7,500. "The demand has just been enormous," Michael Catalano, his booking agent, had told me. "In L.A., there are so many celebrities walking around. But Richard goes to a tiny town in New Hampshire and it's like Elvis coming through."
The malls are his natural habitat. Most of their shoppers are women; his audience is mostly women--95% at first, now more like 65%.
"There's not too many guys in this field. I think a lot of guys thought aerobics were kind of sissy. But I don't go out to make someone a jock. I'm not a jock." This is true. He shoots baskets two-handed. His stride is splay-footed and short. He is not hard and muscular. At 153 pounds, he looks like he could still stand to lose a few. The only obvious evidence of exercise is his thighs, which bulge somewhat.
I suppose some men are . . .
"Jealous," he cracks. "You're right!"
I try again. I suppose some men are nervous about the anti-macho image you project.
"This is just who I am. I was this way when I was a kid, you know. Some people love me and some people don't understand me." It doesn't affect his life, he says. He walks freely in public.
"I don't live in fear. I take it one day at a time, and I try to be who I am and stand for what I believe in. And truthfully, you don't think a lot of people get up in the morning and say, (the macho voice again) 'Well, I don't like Richard Simmons so I'm gonna rush to the mall.'
"There's a lot of wives who do bring their husbands. 'You're going to that mall! You're taking me to see him!' I meet these guys in line. They see what I do and they look at me and go, 'You know, I always thought you were a little nuts, but you helped my wife lose 50 pounds, Richard, and I really respect that.' I get a lot of respect for what I do, and I think that's what counts more than a deep voice. But maybe I'll reach puberty one day and it'll change."
I've seen some of your videos . . .
"Did you do them or did you watch them?"
(Uh-oh, here it comes.) I watched them.
"Ohhhhhhh, I'm a failure, " he wails and dissolves into mock sobbing.
I knew a jab would come sooner or later.
"No," he said, suddenly dead serious. "I'm not like that. You can't force people; it just makes them angry. Whenever my mother said something about my eating, I ate more."
I've seen some of your videos, and what they recommend is very conventional. Most people already know this stuff, don't they?
"They know it from a doctor, but they never heard it from a clown. That's the big difference. You go to a doctor and you sit down and he says, (forbidding voice) 'Mrs. Anderson! What? Do you own stock in See's Candy?'
"OK, I don't do that. I went through that since I was 7 years old. That don't work. They don't want to hear that. They know I'm a compulsive eater and I would arm-wrestle Mother Teresa for an ice cream bar. They know that I face food every day. They don't hear it from anybody else like they hear it from me. I gift-wrap it for them."
We pull up to Orangewood, and the waiting group of officials, mostly women, are jubilant. Now he's on.
He's led to Orangewood's children, age group by age group, and clowns all the way. The toddlers are puzzled. The preschoolers are amused. The 10-year-olds play with him as if he were one of them. Some of teens recognize him as a TV personality.
But his biggest hit is among the women who work there. They all get hugs and kisses, the harmless kind you get from an attentive son or an affectionate brother. They beam and applaud.
These woman are veterans of the calorie wars, remarks Marilyn Lamas, Simmons' secretary. "They love him because he's been there. They think he's God."
Within an hour, he's gone across the street and inside the mall, clowning his way toward the distant stage. It's slow going; he stops to talk with many alone the way, including an obese woman with two children in tow.
I recognize her from his description. He had said there would be many at the show, "women who get married and have three children and do everything for everybody else and one day look in the mirror and say, 'I'm 220 pounds!' "
She smiles at him, and he lets fly a loud "How arrrrre you?"
"Fat," she replies.
"Don't say that," he says, instantly serious. "Don't ever say that." She breaks down and weeps openly. He talks to her softly. You can't hear what he's saying. She nods between sobs. He whispers something to an aide and motions toward her. The aides takes down a name, address and phone number.
"Uh-oh, gotta fluff and run," he shouts, and jogs out of sight down the mall. The sound of rock music rises from somewhere down there, then is drowned in a din of shouts and screams. By the time I get there, he and an immense woman are dancing to the music on stage. His groupies are down front and center in their Simmons T-shirts, but there are hundreds more surrounding the stage--perhaps 800 or 1,000 altogether.
His show lasts 39 minutes, a combination of one-liners and dance-exercise. He calls people up--first children, then teen-agers, then single women--and leads them through simple choreographed routines.
And he confronts the men and calls for them to come up on stage. Women are pointing to their husbands, and he has to coerce most of them: "Come up here. Come here! Come HERE!!"
Eight men finally come up. Most wear surly expressions until Simmons brings out a $100 bill, the prize in the Mr. Sensuous Contest. With that announcement, a ninth man comes up.
After huddling with the men, Simmons calls for the music--"Let Me Entertain You," the strip music from "Gypsy"--and by the time it's over, he has them smiling, waving their fannies and kick-step-kicking in a chorus line. The women howl and later grant the prize to Mr. Fifth-From-the-Right.
Simmons ends, as always, with a pep talk: Admit you're addicted to food, but take it one day at a time. Realize you're a terrific person right now, no matter how much you weigh. And repeat to yourself, I'm worth it.
By the end of the day, clerks had sold two cases of Simmons workout videos at a nearby table. Simmons had signed autographs and talked with everyone in the line that extended 100 yards down the mall. Almost all had been women or girls. Those at the end had waited 2 1/2 hours. Many kidded or gushed. Some cried.
One of them, Bernadette Wells of Santa Ana, explained why: "He's great. He's sincere. He takes interest in people." She gestured toward her 16-year-old daughter, Tamara. "She wrote him a letter, and a week later he called her."
Between autographs, Simmons says that he's made all the money he needs, that he continues on the the grueling shopping-center circuit because it's a good way to reach people.
"You didn't get up on stage and dance with me, Steve," he adds. "I was very disappointed."
I went home, had a pizza and took a nap. But I felt guilty about it.